Former prisoner Will Avila had a dream to help others in the reentry community. Will founded Clean Decisions, a professional-grade cleaning company providing work for returning citizens. His dream became a reality for people like Carlos Tyler and Charles Binion, who both had the chance to meet Will shortly after leaving prison. Will’s compassion and charisma inspired them. Soon, Carlos and Charles were involved in Changing Perceptions, a program focused on shifting mainstream views of former prisoners and empowering the reentry community.
Now serving as “navigators,” or peer mentors of the program, Carlos and Charles are working hard to bring hope to those with stories like theirs. They recently chatted with Prison Fellowship’s Emily Andrews about the road to reentry—how they started over and started giving back, and how others can, too.
Prison Fellowship: Tell me about yourselves. How did you come to be in this job?
Carlos Tyler: While I was incarcerated I obtained my GED, and have since enrolled in Ohio University to study social sciences (maintaining a 3.65 GPA). I’ve been home since February of this year. I was introduced to Will Avila—a returning citizen like me—and I got involved in the program. Later, I was approached about being a Navigator [part case manager, part peer mentor]. I aspire to work with youth, juvenile intervention, so it would be great experience.
Charles Binion: I am a returning citizen as of one year ago. I have never heard of Clean Decisions prior to coming home. I had been in the Release and Sanctions Center, or RSC, and we held morning meetings daily. I talked to this guy from Clean Decisions and we happened to be assigned to the same room. He asked me a whole lot of questions, told me about himself, and shared what he was doing in the community. That guy was Will Avila. We shared a lot of similar goals, and he ended up hiring me.
PF: So how exactly are Clean Decisions and Changing Perceptions related?
CB: Clean Decisions is a job. It’s geared toward hiring former prisoners. The dream of the owner, Will, was to do way more than just hire people. Changing Perceptions was born out of Clean Decisions. Will did it with his own money from CD.
PF: Why is the organization called “Changing Perceptions”?
CT: The reentry community is seen in a certain way. We want to show a new angle, a different perspective of what’s on the surface.
PF: Changing Perceptions is founded and led by returning citizens. How has that helped shape your organization?
CT: You’re working with guys who have treaded the same paths and triumphed the same struggles. You see that they’re winning, and it brings a sense of hope—like OK, this can actually be done. It’s a really positive thing. They are trailblazers.
PF: What is your Navigators program like?
CT: It’s a support system for stabilizing your life, dealing with trauma, finding employment. You’re navigating it together. A person being mentored can say, “I’m working with a person who’s still in my shoes, just further along the path.” In a word, it’s motivation.
CB: Navigators have covered a lot in life: we have the documents we need, we’ve set up bank accounts, we are expanding into the community, we volunteer time, we network. We want to invite other people into what we’re doing. One day, they can help someone else.
PF: How do participants learn to feel safe opening up and trusting others?
CB: It’s not easy. We don’t try to pry into someone’s life, but we have open topics where people share from their experience. I’ve found that I need to open up myself first. I need to share what I’ve been through, and maybe they’ve been through it, too.
CT: A person opens up more to a person with similar struggles. It’s amazing how much a person can open up. I’ve had mentoring like this, only to find out years later that my mentor had gone through the same exact struggles as me.
CB: I’ve been amazed at how hope can spread through us as a collective. I see that energy, and other people see it and accept it. I’ve been out of prison nine months after 23 years behind bars, and I can’t explain how those kinds of people at Changing Perceptions have been there for me. It’s all about the hope we share.
PF: How do you guide the program-to-job transition?
CB: First we have to help people realize what job skills they have already, and we help improve their professional skills. Then we start them along a path of building a resume, getting certifications, getting trained, and finding jobs.
PF: Your website says you aren’t interested in “small results.” How have you seen big results take place in people’s lives through this program?
CB: All of us [at Changing Perceptions] are examples of big results. Just look at the names on our website. It’s really unique how every paid staff member is a member of the reentry community. I am a small business owner now, which is amazing only coming out of prison nine months ago. I’m looking for this business to really grow and help a lot of people in the community.
PF: What do you wish more people knew about returning citizens?
CB: There’s something happening in Washington, D.C., and you can’t ignore it. People like me and Carlos are truly trying and succeeding at life. We want to be a part of the community. We want to be accepted. We just ask that the community allow us to do our part in this revitalization process. If this city is going to prosper, guys like us have to do our part. Others have to see that it is possible.
PF: How do we encourage more involvement in this movement?
CB: You have to be informed, and you have to keep your eyes open. Check out our website! We also have a Pancake Saturday every Saturday around 10am—some people work out while some people make the pancakes. Then we eat together. Sometimes donors and board members come by. Anyone and everyone is welcome.
CT: People need to know they can have a life. They can still do the things they wish they had done before. People—especially members of this reentry community—need to get out there with the children, encouraging them to do the right thing. Don’t hang out on that corner; don’t go down that one path you may not want to take. Together we can change perceptions, renew minds, and continue revitalizing our city.
The stories of Carlos and Charles are echoed by millions of American men and women today—men and women who have paid their debt to society and want to start afresh. But with social stigmas and over 44,000 legal restrictions, returning citizens are often unable to support their families and give back to their communities. Prison Fellowship seeks to break that trend by changing perceptions of people with a criminal record—because they aren’t just people with a criminal record. They are people with value and potential. If we don’t give them a chance, we’re all missing out. Your church can start creating an environment that supports second chances. To learn more about reentry support, click here.